Tag Archives: Biblical Studies

Dealing with Silence and the Absence of Evidence in an Age of Resurgent Orthodoxy

In the world of biblical studies, scholars and laypeople alike tell us over and over that the absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence — and with good reason. Actually, they have two good reasons. First, it is true, in a technical sense. They are not identical propositions. And second, they have to keep telling us, because we keep not finding evidence.

Scholars of ancient history have long had to deal with the lack of evidence, and to determine what, if anything, it means. They ponder especially over expected evidence that refuses to be found.

What is and what is not

Consider, for a moment, what we mean by “describing” something. Its Latin root scribus, to write, reminds us that we’re writing down (de-) what something is. Yet each time we commit to writing what something is, we imply what it is not.

The act of describing is the act of drawing a circle on a Venn diagram. Things inside the circle are “X”; things outside the circle are not “X.” Recall that the Indo-European root of scribus is the word for “cut, separate, or sift.” To describe something is to scratch mentally a circle in which X resides.

Imagine that objects of type X are red. Therefore, a green object cannot be an X. We may find such statements a bit too dogmatic, and so we soften them — “All known objects of type X are red.” “We do not expect to find green instances of X.”

The Battle of Jericho — History?

You will recognize this immediately as an inductive argument, as we’re trying to build a model that accounts for and describes the properties of objects of type X, via a process of investigating known instances. In the real world, people used to say that all swans are white, which led to the classic “surprise” at finding the first black swan.

What did you expect?

However, I would again draw your attention to a key concept in this discussion: expectation. People expected the next swan they saw would be white, because all previous swans they had encountered were white. European and American archaeologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries expected to find lots of tangible evidence for the United Kingdom of David and Solomon. The books they held to be true history (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles) led them to expect it.

But then the unexpected happened. They kept not finding evidence. What did that mean? Did the evidence disappear? Were we extremely unlucky in our searches? read more »

On Christians and Christianity, Bible Scholars and Bible Scholarship


Campus evangelism

I have some sympathy for people who embrace religious faith, even Christianity. I have a lot of respect for scholarly research, including that into Christian origins.

But I loathe some forms of Christianity that do irreparable damage to many people. I also have little respect for public intellectuals (scholars) who betray their public by fostering personal antipathy towards those who raise radical questions about the foundations of their work and protect their professional status and faith by means of culpably ignorant and fallacious arguments.

So I have some reservations about attacking religious belief head on. I’m reminded of Tamas Pataki’s point about the importance of trying to understand the function of religion for so many: “its emotional significance for its adherent, its intimate relations to human needs.” I know I am much better off as a person since having turned my back on religion. I do believe (in theory) that all of humanity should be much better off without religion. But then I wonder if that belief assumes some kind of overly optimistic view of human nature.

I don’t mean that I’m comfortable with the way things are. I suppose I would find myself rejoicing like an angel in heaven over learning of another friend who learned to leave God behind and walk through life as a humanist, naturalist, rationalist, atheist, or whatever term they thought most apt for capturing their new identity.

And it’s certainly good that there are others who take the time to expose the follies of faith for those whose time has come to listen. I am riled every Thursday when I see members of a religious cult setting up at a main crossroads on campus a display stand of their tracts and standing there attempting to invite young overseas students who are away from family, friends, cultural roots into conversation. Preying on the vulnerable (many have scarcely heard anything about Christianity before they arrive) looking for a new friendly community. Lovebombing. I wish I could do a Christ and overturn their table and whip them out of the grounds.

On the other hand I have no desire to go out of my way to try to deconvert my grandmother.

Then there are the bible scholars.

I don’t mean scholarship. The distinction is important. Richard Carrier’s point is pertinent:  read more »

Who Were the Hellenists in Acts?


By Fra Angelico, “Life of Stephen: Ordination and Distributing Alms” — making sure the Hellenist widows get a fair deal.

Larry Hurtado’s Blog is a sincere effort to share biblical scholarship with a wider lay readership. He has most recently pointed to a site that promises to address biblical issues for a general readership and even has an “ask a scholar” section: Bible Odyssey. Hurtado’s interpretations are (in my view) quite conservative. I think one should raise questions when a scholar’s explanations for so many questions coincidentally support traditional Christian dogma. I don’t suggest that all of his views should be suspect for that reason alone: I have found some of his analysis into how soon Jesus was worshiped as an exalted divine figure to be very strong. But I think Biblioblogs fail to fully respect readers when they present just one view of scholarly research as if that one view were “the correct” one.

Vridar was started as an attempt to share “the other side” of so much scholarly research in biblical studies. When I first took up learning so much about scholarly studies into the nature and origins of the Biblical literature I found that it was so difficult to wade through so much that was logically suspect or short on clear evidence. There was so much assumption, specious reasoning, possibilities that were transformed to probabilities and then to facts, circular argument . . . . and most of it was (suspiciously) essentially consistent with conventional religious dogmas.

So when I read The “Hellenists” of Acts: Dubious Assumptions and an Important Publication — a post in which Larry Hurtado argues that the only difference between the Hellenists in Acts and other Jewish members of the first church was that they hailed from the Diaspora and hence spoke Greek — I felt compelled to submit the following comment:  read more »

How Open To Radically Fresh Ideas Are New Testament Scholars Really?

6th August: corrected the first quote: the first line should have read 

I had supposed that scholars were dedicated to the pursuit of truth, wherever that might lead, and that new ideas would always be welcome. 


Even some of the more conservative of New Testament scholars boast how they belong to a guild that prides itself on craving exploration for new insights, that is committed to testing the old ideas following wherever the truth may lead. Emeritus Professor Larry Hurtado about a year ago posted one such claim that as stridently endorsed by fellow faithful Christian soldiers/scholars James McGrath and Jim West:

The field of NT/Christian Origins, for example, is now more diverse, with more approaches, more perspectives, than ever; and probably most scholars dream of being able to correct or refute some established view, or successfully lodge some new view, or publish some hitherto unknown or insufficiently noted datum. 

Innocent bystanders might raise an eyebrow at such claims emanating from a field that looks for all the world as if it is dominated by persons with a conflict of interest to such a pursuit. The vast majority are clearly committed in some fashion to the faith their scholarship seeks to underpin (or test).

I responded critically to the main theme of Larry’s disingenuously self-serving remarks because they sounded to me so contrary to what I have known researchers in “real” say about their fields. Do theologians really believe their own propaganda aimed at the masses of unwashed outsiders?

Fortunately not all do.

I have just had the pleasure of reading the memoirs of Michael Goulder, Five Stones and a Sling: Memoirs of a Biblical Scholar. Goulder is most noted for keeping the torch burning for the Austin Farrer thesis — the thesis that Luke knew and used Matthew and that there was no Q document behind either of these gospels — until Mark Goodacre came along to stand at his side and take up the cause.

There’s much in Goulder’s memoirs to write about but here let’s just see what this renowned scholar had to say about his own scholarly peers and their willingness to take up new ideas.

He explains the disappointment he experienced when scholars first dismissed his carefully reasoned arguments without any attempt to engage seriously with them: read more »

Biblioblogging, Politics & the Core Function of Biblical Studies


Crossley as Che Guevara Jesus. See image at end of post

This is part 3 of my review of Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology by James G. Crossley. (Once again I invite Professor Crossley to alert me to anything he sees in these posts that he believes is a misrepresentation of his views.)

In the previous post we saw how James Crossley uses chapter 2 to convey a general idea of the concepts scholars of “postmodernism” associate with postmodernity, postmodernism and related political and economic developments. This is essentially to set the “broad contextual basis”, Crossley explains, “for analysing some of the ways in which Jesus has been constructed in scholarship and beyond in recent decades.”

Crossley’s own political polemic dominates his discussion. His concluding paragraph begins:

Many people now look back in disbelief over the past decade, and the roles of Bush and Blair in particular. But now we have Obama, the great liberal figure of our time. . . .

And continues . . .

Yet, beneath the high rhetoric, Obama rarely deviated from standard American positions on the Middle East in recent years and provided minimum detail. And, in the heart of an anti-democratic police state with an unfortunate human rights record . . .

And concludes . . .

as he stood shoulder to shoulder with Mubarak, an issue which is apparently best forgotten now that the Western media could no longer avoid showing Mubarak for what he is.

No reference to biblical scholarship. As I pointed out previously, in major respects I sympathize with Crossley’s political views but I was led to read a book expecting an explanation of how political and related trends influenced Jesus scholarship; rather, one senses that Crossley is hoping to politically (re)educate his scholarly peers.

The Wrong, the Defeated and the Exception

So we come to chapter 3 which is about Biblioblogging.

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Is Oral Tradition Like the Old Telephone Game?

An early 20th century candlestick phone being ...

“Yes, Muriel, that’s exactly what he said: ‘Blessed are the cheese-makers.'”

Long distance runaround

In several of Bart Ehrman’s books on the New Testament, he likens the transmission of traditions about Jesus’ words and deeds to the old telephone game, or as our friends in the Commonwealth call it, Chinese whispers (now often considered offensive). He refers to this model in his lectures, too, telling it roughly the same way in at least three of the courses I’ve listened to. Sometimes, as in the latest text on Jesus’ divinity, How Jesus Became God (HJBG), he describes the process without naming it.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with Ehrman’s boilerplate explanation, here it is from his most recent book. I wouldn’t normally quote so much text verbatim, but I think it’s crucial for understanding Ehrman’s theory of the transmission of the Jesus tradition.

If the authors [of the gospels] were not eyewitnesses and were not from Palestine and did not even speak the same language as Jesus, where did they get their information? Here again, there is not a lot of disagreement among critical scholars. After Jesus died, his followers came to believe he was raised from the dead, and they saw it as their mission to convert people to the belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus were the death and resurrection of God’s messiah and that by believing in his death and resurrection a person could have eternal life. The early Christian “witnesses” to Jesus had to persuade people that Jesus really was the messiah from God, and to do that they had to tell stories about him. So they did. They told stories about what happened at the end of his life—the crucifixion, the empty tomb, his appearances to his followers alive afterward. They also told stories of his life before those final events—what he taught, the miracles he performed, the controversies he had with Jewish leaders, his arrest and trial, and so on. (HJBG, p. 47, emphasis mine)

Ehrman starts by presupposing an original set of eyewitness testimonies. He assumes the disciples really saw and heard Jesus and then told stories about him after his death. Note that Ehrman doesn’t necessarily believe that the resurrection stories were literally, historically true; rather, the disciples came to believe they were true.

These stories circulated. Anyone who converted to become a follower of Jesus could and did tell the stories. A convert would tell his wife; if she converted, she would tell her neighbor; if she converted, she would tell her husband; if he converted, he would tell his business partner; if he converted, he would take a business trip to another city and tell his business associate; if he converted, he would tell his wife; if she converted, she would tell her neighbor . . . and on and on. Telling stories was the only way to communicate in the days before mass communication, national media coverage, and even significant levels of literacy (at this time only about 10 percent of the population could read and write, so most communication was oral). (HJBG, p. 47, emphasis mine)

Long time waiting to feel the sound

He imagines Christianity slowly spreading orally from person to person, one on one, with people telling stories about Jesus in their own words. Still, the presumption is that the stories came from sources that were originally reliable. He writes:
read more »

Maurice Casey Fails His Historical Method Essay – Monday

Caprichos, No. 23

Caprichos, No. 23 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maurice, Maurice, Maurice, what are we going to do with you!

You have written an 8000 word essay that you titled Historical Method. You included it in your portfolio titled Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?

Can I ask how much research you did in preparation for this? Ah, so you say you used all the notes supplied you by Stephanie Fisher. Did you do any checking of source material for yourself? Oh, I see, mostly what Stephanie supplied you. Well, Maurice, I’m afraid that’s no excuse. This was your assignment and you are responsible for what goes into it.

No, Maurice, you didn’t pass. I gave you an F. You’re going to have to do it all again. . . .

Yes, Maurice, an F. If you carry on like that I’ll make it an F minus.

That’s better.

And for your next effort I insist you throw away everything Stephanie fed you and do your own fact-finding and make it your own work for which you alone are responsible.

No, Maurice, it’s not because I don’t like you. Come up and sit down here and I’ll go through it with you and show you why you need to do the whole lot again.

Look. You’ve titled it “Historical Method”. Now show me where in the essay you explained what “historical method” is. . . . No, it’s no good just gazing at the paper. You didn’t explain it anywhere. You didn’t even say what any mythicist thinks historical method is. From reading your paper I’m none the wiser on what New Testament scholars think is their historical method and I have no idea what any mythicist thinks it is or what it should be either. read more »

What the Context Group (and Casey) Missed

What Is Social-Scientific Criticism?

What Is Social-Scientific Criticism?

Social-Scientific Criticism

In an earlier post — Casey: Taking Context out of Context — we discussed the disturbing habit in NT scholarship of explaining away textual difficulties by playing the high-context card. For example, in What Is Social-Scientific Criticism? John H. Elliott of the Context Group writes:

Further, the New Testament, like the Old Testament and other writings of antiquity, consists of documents written in what anthropologists call a “high context” society where the communicators presume a broadly shared acquaintance with and knowledge of the social context of matters referred to in conversation or writing. Accordingly, it is presumed in such societies that contemporary readers will be able to “fill in the gaps” and “read between the lines.” (John H Elliott. Kindle Locations 125-128)

Similarly, Bruce Malina explains why Paul’s writings are often “misunderstood”:

The New Testament was written in what anthropologists call a “high context” culture. People who communicate with each other in high context societies presume a broadly shared, generally well-understood knowledge of the context of anything referred to in conversation or in writing. (Bruce J. Malina; John J. Pilch. Social-science Commentary on the Letters of Paul (p. 5). Kindle Edition.)

Hoping to explain away the messianic secret, David F. Watson says:

The necessity of protective secrecy was exacerbated in the ancient Mediterranean context by the “high-context” nature of the culture. A high-context culture is one in which people are deeply involved in the everyday activities of those around them and in which information is widely shared. . . . Within the high-context setting, secrecy would be an important and necessary means of protection. (Watson, Honor among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret, p. 25)

Useful but misused

I want to be clear up front. I would never argue that social-scientific criticism is in itself a misguided approach, but I do wish to point out a few observations that indicate a pattern of misuse. We continually read that the people in Jesus’ and Paul’s time lived in a high-context culture, with little in the way of demonstration.

However, a scientific approach demands that scholars provide evidence for their assertions. Besides proving that NT writers lived in high-context cultures, scholars must also prove it follows that their writings will always reflect that high context. Because it is stated flatly as a “known fact,” we miss out on important points of the discussion. For example:

read more »

Who’s the scholarly scoundrel? Scholars of Christian origins bound by bias, immured in myth.


I disengaged from the question that was being asked, falling on the last resort of the scholarly scoundrel: “I’m just trying to figure out what really happened! (Daniel Boyarin)


Most of us [biblical scholars] are just trying to follow the evidence. (Larry Hurtado)


just-the-factsForget mythicism or the Christ myth debate. That’s irrelevant. Or should be. What matters is the evidence we have, understanding it and explaining it. The evidence we have from the early days of Christianity is a literary and a theological Jesus. No-one I know of in my circle gloats or thinks they are scoring points over whether they can prove or disprove the existence of the historical Jesus. What interests them is understanding the best way to explain both the nature of early Christianity and Christianity’s origins. What matters is making the best sense of the data available. But first we need to have a clear and valid understanding of what constitutes the data to be explained.

In my previous post I noted what should be a simple truism: scholars of Christian origins generally are doing little more than paraphrasing (in scholarly language and with their own qualifying preferences) the Christian myth we have inherited from the Bible.

I have no doubt the bulk of them are very sincere and would sincerely censure me for suggesting that their scholarly pursuits are trapped in the myth itself. This blog has frequently posted observations of the ineptitude of some biblical scholars who seem to fall very short with respect to rigour and understanding of questions of historical methods, awareness of what their peers and foundational predecessors have written, and even the very nature of scholarly bias and the meaning of evidence.

The second of the quotes above struck me at first as a caricature. Surely a professor would know something about the nature of bias in any scholarly pursuit and especially in one as ideological as biblical studies.

Apparently not. I attempted to post a comment addressing the naivety of this view but my comment was rejected. The same professor even remarked that my suggestion of bias in the scholarly field amounted to charge of a “conspiratorial agenda”. Does a professor really believe that the alternative to freedom from bias is deliberate conspiracies? Or is this a defensive response against lay critics who can see the emperors are scantily clad?

So I post here the message that the professor did not appear to want others to read on his blog:

I do not believe biblical studies is unlike any other academic discipline and institution when it comes to questions of institutional (let alone personal) bias. Bias is a necessary part of the human condition and without it we cannot function. Surely everyone knows that the trick is to be aware of our biases and that that is not always a simple matter.

We don’t need to go beyond Albert Schweitzer’s observation that up till his own day scholars had produced an array of historical Jesus figures, each one in the image of his scholarly creator.

The latest historical Jesus figure I’ve encountered was only a few months ago and he, too, is very much the spitting image of his maker, Rabbi Joseph Hoffmann (i.e., all his scholarly peers are failures, only he can rescue them, but they don’t listen to him, he is without a place, and he sure as blazes doesn’t love everybody). I think we can conclude little has changed since Schweitzer’s day in this respect.

No one “simply follows the evidence” read more »

Why the Church Does Not Want Jesus — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ chapter 4

Niels Peter Lemche is the author of the fourth chapter of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’, “The Grand Inquisitor and Christ: Why the Church Does Not Want Jesus”. He frames his case around the parable in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, that tells of Christ being arrested on his return to earth in the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor informs the imprisoned Christ that he will have to be burned at the stake because he is a danger to the Church. But there is a subtle twist in the parable which is the key to understanding the paradoxical argument that follows.

But before starting, let me point out that this post is different from earlier ones discussing chapters of this book. Rather than sequentially paraphrasing the argument I take some core arguments in Lemche’s chapter as a springboard for discussion of my own observations. (So I omit all reference to the origins of historical-critical scholarship, liberation theology and third world exegesis, Philipp Gabler‘s famous lecture on the conflict between historical theology and ecclesiastical dogmatics, the various ways both Catholics and Protestants have historically controlled the reading of the Bible, Marcion’s and von Harnack’s complaints about the inclusion of the Jewish scriptures in the Christian Bible . . . . , that Lemche covers in this chapter.) Now back to the parable. . . .

Ivan Karamazov (John Malkovich)

The parable is told by Ivan Karamazov who appears to side with the Inquisitor in objecting to the Jesus Christ who walks straight out of the pages of the Gospels and begins performing miracles etc just as he did there. (There is much more to the original story, but let’s roll with the details Lemche selects for his analogy.) The irony for Lemche is that this same Ivan also represents those who in other ways question the Church. The Grand Inquisitor thus turns out to be something of a double-edged sword. “Perhaps there are more layers represented in this novel than appear at first sight.

For Lemche, the Grand Inquisitor represents “the position of the well-educated clergy of the Church“. The threats it faces come from two opposing sides, and one of these sides finds itself in an ambiguous position:


Threat #1 — the pious laity with their Bible

Yes, there is the threat from “the pious laity having read too much of the Bible”:

The difference between the Christ of the Church and the Jesus of the Gospels becomes dangerous when explained to the laity. (p. 77)

Elsewhere Lemche has argued that pious people should not be allowed within a hundred metres of the Bible. “Reading the Bible has not done them much good.” Some who would follow in Christ’s footsteps have been rendered harmless by being incorporated into the constraints of the Church itself (e.g. the Franciscans). Others have gone down in history as suicide cults. I and many others would add a vast array of dysfunctional mental, physical, financial and social legacies among too many of the faithful. read more »

Dr. McGrath’s Carnival Game

“Step right up and win a plush toy for the little lady. Step right up!”

Ring Toss

Ring Toss (Photo credit: burakiewicz)

Have you ever gone to the carnival and tried your hand at the ring toss? Ever tried to pop the balloons with a dart, or knock over the milk bottles with a ball? And did you come away suspecting the game was rigged?

Well, odds are the game was rigged. In some cases the game operator can tinker with the target, give you a sharper dart or a larger ring – he can let you win whenever it suits him. However, in other cases, you’re never going to win. It looks as if you could win, but it’s impossible. It’s rigged.

Sometimes real life is like that. It appears as if you could win the argument, or at least get a fair hearing, as long as you could just tick the right number of boxes, develop that airtight case, build on the most relevant scholarship, use the most felicitous language. But you can’t win. The game is “gaffed.”

If you visit McGrath’s carnival, “Exploring Our Matrix,” don’t expect to bring home a teddy bear. The rules won’t allow it. Step right up and read Creationists, Mythicists, and the Schroedinger’s Scholar Fallacy, and you’ll see what I mean. Do you question the validity of the historical Jesus consensus? Then you’re already wrong. What’s that you say? You say you’ve read a whole lot, and while you respect the mainstream scholars, you disagree? Well, you see, that’s not your prerogative. That’s off the table. read more »

Theologians Reject Basics of History: A Way Forward

Reproduction of a coloured copperplate engraving of the Czech edition of a book by German theologian and historian Heinrich Bünting

From Czech Parliament: I can forgive a historian cum theologian who makes Prague the centre of the world

Edited conclusion and added the last paragraph since first posting this.

This is not about mythicism versus the historicity of Jesus. It makes no difference to me if Jesus was a revolutionary or a rabbi, lived 100 b.c.e., 30 c.e. or was philosophical-theological construct. All of that is completely irrelevant for assessing the validity of the fundamentals of how historians [ideally/should] work with sources. From what I have read of mythicist literature I think that few mythicists are any more informed of the basics of how a historian ought to approach sources than are most theologians and other historical Jesus scholars. Theologians have taken the lead in biblical studies and others approaching this field have fallen in step with the methods they have bequeathed.

Unfortunately theologians generally have the most to lose ideologically from any change in their methods and so are likely to be the most antagonistic to any criticism of their methods that comes from outside their guild. Not that valid historical methods will necessarily mean the demise of the historicity of Jesus. Far from it! But I do believe that valid historical methods will at least open up the question to potentially greater respectability; they will also make greater intellectual demands on theologians to justify their hypotheses and assumptions. Maybe there lies the great fear.

Recently I have posted a few extracts from historians giving basic advice on how historians should approach their sources. “From Reliable Sources” by Howell and Prevenier looks primarily (not exclusively) at written sources and Vansina is an authority on history derived from oral sources. Since I placed these quotations beside those of a theologian who asserts strenuously (though consistently with zero supporting evidence) that theologians do just what other mainstream historians do, I was accused of misrepresenting both the historians’ works I quoted and his own words that I quoted in full. It was even suggested I had not even read the books along with the sly hint that since I was a “lowly librarian” I was not qualified to quote anyone or comment on an academic question anyway. Such are the cerebral (intestinal?) responses from those who reluctantly look into a verbal mirror placed before them by one whose otherwise unrelated conclusions they despise (fear?).

The touchstone of all historical interpretation of a source is knowing its provenance. Yet this is the first hurdle historical Jesus scholars crash into. Historical Jesus scholars bypass the basic standards historians normally apply when approaching their sources and rely entirely on circular reasoning to establish what they need to support their hypotheses.

Let’s look again at what are the basics any historian worth his or her salt should first establish in order to know how to interpret a document and understand what sort of information can be validly gleaned from it.

Two caveats to the above, though.

  1. An increasing number of scholars, no doubt theologians among them, are now embracing valid historical methodology in relation to the Old Testament.
  2. Further, there are good histories and bad histories, diligent historians and lazy historians. My yardstick in this post for what constitutes good history is taken from works I have discussed in recent posts — an introduction to graduate students about to undertake serious historical research and various editions of an authority on oral history.

Certain Basic Matters

Here is some of what I quoted from Howell and Prevenier in my earlier post:

In order for a source to be used as evidence in a historical argument, certain basic matters about its form and content must be settled. (p. 43, emphasis mine)

What are some of these basic matters? They explain: read more »

More games played by (some, many?) biblical scholars with “research data”, and personal reflection on why I post this stuff

Linking Open Datasets

Image via Wikipedia

The past few weeks at work have been heavy with getting my head around (1) various requirements for measuring research outputs from universities, and (2) requirements for curating and linking for re-use research datasets. It’s all about measurable data. Citation counts, journal rankings, figures from experiments, surveys, tests. And having an Arts and History background I am always attentive to how the less mathematical disciplines are handled in such processes, too. And when I think of publications by academic historians I know personally I recall the extensive research that they have undertaken to produce stories that are grounded in massive amounts of collected data. It comes from newspapers, police and town council records, diaries, etc. Even ancient histories I read — the development of Athenian democracy, for example — are based on masses of diverse documents and archaeological reports. (One almost gets the impression that topics are chosen, questions are asked, research is undertaken, in accordance with areas for which there is such evidence.)

And then I recall last night I was re-reading a few pages from Paula Fredriksen and Maurice Casey justifying their historical claims about the personal relationship Jesus had with John the Baptist. Neither has any real data about such a relationship on which to ground their discussions. The Gospels in fact don’t speak of such a relationship between them. It is all speculation. Note, for example, how Fredriksen manages to convey a sense of multiple sources for her conclusions, and note the smoke and mirrors at work:

What we do know past doubting is that John had a crucially important impact on Jesus. (p. 191 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews)

That is a strong statement. But now look at what it is based upon: read more »

Response to McGrath’s circularity and avoidance of the methodological argument

Logarithmic spiral

Image via Wikipedia

In a “response” to a recent post of mine about historical method, James McGrath illustrates well the very problem and question begging that my post was intended to highlight.

McGrath’s opening statement affirms that he simply fails to grasp the argument I am presenting.

[Neil Godfrey’s] post begins by stating and commenting on the principle which was the focus of my [McGrath’s] post: “If all we have is a story that has no corroboration external to the narrative itself to attest to its historical status, then at the most basic level we have no way of knowing if the story has a historical basis or not.”

Whether this describes the situation in the case of the Gospels or not is perhaps best left to one side for now. Certainly the Gospels are not without a context provided both by Paul’s earlier epistles and by their reception history.

That second paragraph that I have highlighted demonstrates a failure to grasp the meaning of the words of mine he has just quoted. McGrath says the “context” of the Gospels consists of the early epistles of Paul and their reception history, but this “context” is not the same thing at all as providing external corroboration or controls that can testify to the historicity of the narrative of the gospels. They may indeed provide “context”. But that misses the point. read more »